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Refugee families will find a way

Three other Missouri State students and I volunteered at RAICES, a non-governmental organization in San Antonio, Texas, over the winter break to provide free legal assistance to detained refugees and immigrants. This is my story.

By Juan Narvaez, senior, global studies

I was about three months old the day my mom took all four of my siblings and I from Nicaragua to the United States. I was about six months old when the trip was finally over.

I grew up like a regular kid. I did not know of the hardships or poverty we faced in Nicaragua. I grew up with English as my first language. I knew where I came from, but as far as I was concerned, I was American.

Juan Narvaez

Heading to an eye-opening experience

From my first day at Karnes, I learned three themes that were important when conducting credible fear interview (CFI) preps with the women.

  1. Discovering why they are afraid of being or returning to their home country.
  2. Exploring why they did not go to the police and denounce these threats, abuses, or crimes.
  3. Finding why relocation within their country was not an option.

One memorable experience for me was at Casa de Raíces (a shelter commissioned by the organization mainly for women and children who have been released and have no place to go).

I volunteered to take a mom and her son to check-in at Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in San Antonio.

She was missing her previously scheduled check-in in Kentucky because of some medical problems her son was being treated for, including cataract surgery and renal disease.

Carlitos (which is not his real name) is about 4 years old and blind. Upon arrival at the ICE headquarters, as we were walking through the doors, I became particularly aware of what I was stepping into: I remembered that I’m only a permanent resident myself! I felt small and oppressed. Then I imagined what the mother of Carlitos might be feeling.

Juan Narvaez, Alana Collins, Melvi CifuentesThe journey of a lifetime

Another day, I went to the Greyhound station to get general biographical information for follow-up and handed out backpacks with all sorts of snacking goodies, coloring books and some toys as these families prepared for a long journey by bus to their destinations all over the country.

While I was there, I saw a Karnes detainee who I had helped with a CFI preparation. I talked with her and it was really great to know that she got out.

I talked with a lot of women that afternoon about their rights to enroll their children in school and how to read their bus tickets. I was glad that they were out of that place, but I had this depressing feeling shadowing me.

All these women, with their whole lives in their arms carrying flimsy cloth bags and children, with some probably not even planning to continue their asylum cases.

A story that haunts me

My very last sit-down interview of the entire trip haunts me.

She was the mother of two, a 5- and 9-year-old. Her husband worked as police investigator for 10 years. He was investigating gang-related activities when multiple 18th Street gang members identified him and entered her home with guns in search of her husband. They threatened her and her whole family that if they were not gone in 72 hours, they would come back to kill all four of them.

Luckily, her husband was not home at the time. They went to the police to denounce their assailants – the same police her husband works for – but they saw no action other than a filed police report which the mother has copies of with her.

I told her that was a very important piece of evidence to submit as you move along your asylum case. She told me everywhere you go in Honduras is the same. The gangs are saturated in all departments and they will always find you wherever you are.

She also said that she did not want to put any other family members in danger’s way. They fled. Thankfully, no one was physically harmed in any way, but one can only imagine what kind of mental trauma or distress they endured.

When the family crossed the border into the U.S. and were apprehended, they were separated. The husband, as most adult males are, was detained apart from the mother and her two children at Karnes. During our meeting, she was frantic about the status of her husband. She feared for her husband’s life if he were to be removed back to Honduras.

Juan NarvaezThe current political environment

From the transition of President Obama to President Trump, the election can serve as a wake-up call for those who grew complacent under the previous eight years.

During this election, we saw divisive, sometimes plain discriminatory rhetoric against certain people of different faiths or a general label that Mexico is sending us nothing but “bad hombres.”

I think about not only the women and children that I had the opportunity to help at Karnes, but also of the men fleeing to keep alive.

I wonder why they chose the United States. I wonder if they know about the realities of American racism that exists here and of the discrimination and hate their children will face.

In my final reflection, these issues are transcended in matters of life and death, and families are determined to survive and provide for their children no matter what barriers or walls stand in front of them. They will find a way.

I guess I want to close with a conclusive statement that shows my love for the United States and about how diversity and inclusion of America’s multicultural identity is the statement my generation will carry into the future despite whatever the next four years brings.

Read Melvi’s story

Read Alana’s story

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Why my stance on immigration has strengthened

Three other Missouri State students and I volunteered at RAICES, a non-governmental organization in San Antonio, Texas, over the winter break to provide free legal assistance to detained refugees and immigrants. This is my story.

By Alana Collins, sophomore, political science

Volunteering for a nonprofit organization like RAICES has been a true eye opening experience. Before volunteering, I knew next to nothing about America’s immigration system and why so many immigrants were fleeing their countries.

Due to the fact that I do not have a personal connection with this issue, I never took the time to investigate further than social media and briefly watching news reports. This was a mistake on my part.

I am not a fluent Spanish speaker, so it was difficult to interact with the women and children directly since none of them spoke English. But one story sticks out to me above all the others.

Alana Collins

A surprising ruling

The first court hearing that I was able to sit in on was very stressful. The way the court room was set up was much different than what I am used to.

Judge Harlow, who ultimately has the final say in whether the person on trial is deported back to their country, has no personal contact with the defendant. I had a hard time listening as Harlow asked, through an interpreter, the defendants questions that I felt were unnecessary.

A mother and her teenage son were fleeing their country due to gang violence and hoped for a safer life in the U.S. But they had failed to file a police report in their home country regarding any interactions with gangs.

I had heard previously that Harlow was not very lenient and often ordered those who fail to file a police report to be deported. By some miracle, Judge Harlow found the defendants to have a credible fear and allowed them to move forward with their asylum case.

Alana CollinsReady to be an advocate for change

By having the privilege to work alongside such admirable people who are willing to go above and beyond for those who are not able to advocate for themselves, my stance on immigration has strengthened and has pushed me to seek more learning opportunities within the government field.

Since returning to Springfield, I have applied for a couple of internship opportunities that will allow me to work with others who also fight for equality and fairness for all.

I have also been eager to share my experience with anyone who will listen and hope that by spreading my knowledge over the subject matter, I will enlighten those who may be ignorant of the topic regarding immigration.

The stories I heard about these women and children still haunt me today, but I am still grateful for the opportunity and encourage others, who have the strength, to volunteer with the wonderful group of people I had the pleasure of meeting.

Read Juan’s story

Read Melvi’s story

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Why I want to pursue a career in immigration law

Three other Missouri State students and I volunteered at RAICES, a non-governmental organization in San Antonio, Texas, over the winter break to provide free legal assistance to detained refugees and immigrants. This is my story.

By Melvi Cifuentes, junior, political science

A common misconception of who is immigrating into the United States is generally those directly on the other side of the southern border – Mexicans. The second common misconception is that they are immigrating to the United States for economic reasons.

Throughout my time volunteering for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in San Antonio, Texas, and traveling to the Karnes Family Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, I discovered the true nature of why families are immigrating in large masses.

I also saw where in fact these families are from: the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras).

My first day was going to the Residential Center where mothers and their children are held while they await their credible fear interviews (CFI) and the response to their interview.

Melvi Cifuentes
Melvi Cifuentes

Just imagine

I sat in with Barbara Hines, top immigration lawyer who spoke at Missouri State in fall 2016, as she interviewed a single mother from El Salvador with two young daughters.

What pushed her over the edge to make the long journey from El Salvador to the U.S. had been a point-blank threat in broad daylight – her story itself was enough to have a positive result for her CFI. However, toward the end of the CFI Prep, she mentioned her daughter having experiences of her own related to gang violence.

I volunteered to interview her 14-year old daughter. She sobbed and shook as she told her story. She began with an incident where she was playing soccer at school when two classmates asked her to go with them to make copies. The classmates ended up taking her toward gang members from MS13. She tried turning around, but the girls grabbed her and dragged her toward them.

She screamed and pleaded and tried getting loose – finally biting one of them – and another group of classmates heard her and then came to her rescue. Although she was fortunately saved from major harm that day, it wasn’t the only encounter she had with these people.

She once had a rod shoved through her knee and on a different occasion, she was shoved and fell on something that cut her eye nearly deep enough to almost blind her. These encounters, along with her mother’s, drove them to flee and seek asylum.

This was my first case at Karnes within only a few hours of stepping foot into the building for the first time. I heard many more tragedies such as this while volunteering at Karnes. This little girl truly impacted me to the point that I will never forget the fear in her eyes.

Melvi CifuentesOther influential experiences

I also got to meet two immigration judges who couldn’t have been more different in their demeanor: one who was intimidating and one who was comforting. Watching their proceedings, and their interactions with the women, made me realize how much gets lost in translation.

Colloquialisms vary depending on home country, and because the translator is often on the telephone rather than in the room, they miss nonverbal cues.

The women who are fortunate enough to receive a positive response leave the detention center. Those who have travel arrangements (made and paid for often by friends or family) are taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and are released to the nearest Greyhound bus station or airport.

This is cause for excitement and, in a way, good news for them. But they have nothing more than a reusable grocery tote with everything they now possess in the world.

Volunteers like myself go to these bus stations and teach each woman to know how to read their bus ticket, including layovers, where and when they will switch buses, and pronunciation of cities.

You must remember that the countries they are coming from don’t resemble the U.S. in the least bit. Also, some are illiterate and even if they could read they don’t speak English to read their tickets or be able to ask to get around each bus station until they get to their final destination.

Melvi CifuentesPersonal impact

Listening to these mothers’ stories and seeing their children’s fear and sadness for what they have lived through – and also for their uncertain future – was disheartening.

The entire process leads to this traumatized group of people into re-traumatization through essential incarceration and having to relive the experiences and share shameful and taboo (by their culture’s standards) information with multiple strangers.

Before this experience, I was a supporter of immigration reform. Now, I want to pursue a career in immigration law. It has completely changed me.

Personally, there was a time when admitting I was an immigrant was rather shameful because of the stigma the word immigrant has. I never thought I would see a day in which people would hold signs in public stating that their legal or lack of legal status. A time when people would step from outside the shadows and no longer accept feeling less because of the label “illegal immigrant.”

I am beyond grateful for the incredible opportunity from which I have grown personally, intellectually and academically.

Read Juan’s story

Read Alana’s story


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Freedom fighters

When top immigration lawyer Barbara Hines asked for volunteers for her organization, Raices, we heard the call.

Our names are Juan Narvaez, Melvi Cifuentes and Alana Collins. We’re students at Missouri State, and we spent our winter intersession week in San Antonio helping women and children build their cases about why they should be able to remain in the United States.

We walked away as politically engaged leaders who care about global issues, and the people for which our assistance meant the difference between life and death.

This is part one of a four-part series. This is our story.

Read Juan’s story

Read Melvi’s story

Read Alana’s story

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Alumnus set to film inauguration trip with Chorale

The Missouri State Chorale will perform during the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, and Blake Richter will be there to record it. Richter was chosen to accompany the Chorale as videographer and will document the historic event for future Bears. We caught up with him to find out how preparations are going.

I feel so blessed to be able to go on this incredible journey with the Chorale. Being an alum of the group makes it even more special. I’ve been wanting to travel to D.C. for quite a while now since I have never been there, but I never thought I would be going there to sit on the U.S. Capitol Building with the MSU Chorale during the presidential inauguration. It’s so crazy that this is real!

Blake Richter and Dr. Cameron LaBarr
Blake and Director of Choral Studies Dr. Cameron LaBarr. Photo credit: Blake Richter

Receiving the honor

I graduated from Missouri State with a Bachelor of Music Education and I am now the music teacher at Inman Intermediate in Nixa, Missouri. I also run my own business called Blake Richter Productions, which focuses on audio engineering, video production, and photography.

Dr. (Cameron) LaBarr is a huge reason why my production company has been so successful. I started doing recordings for the Choral Studies Program about a year and a half ago and because of that, other choirs have had me record for them.

I have worked alongside Dr. LaBarr for many projects and I’ve also done some recordings for his wife Susan, who is the editor of Walton Music. They have both recorded in my home studio as well.

The day it was announced that the Chorale would be performing at the inauguration, I texted Dr. LaBarr congratulating him and he responded with, “So are you in?” About two weeks later, we sat down for coffee, talked through logistics, and it was official that I was going along to capture all of the behind the scenes footage of the trip.

Bass section of the Chorale
Blake and the bass section in 2015. Photo credit: Blake Richter

Maintaining relationships in the Chorale

I know about half of the members in Chorale. I graduated in 2015, so some of the juniors and seniors were in Chorale when I was in it. I have also been a counselor for the Missouri State Choral Institute for the past two years, so I know some of the freshmen and sophomores through that experience.

The Chorale in Paris
Blake and the Chorale performed in Paris in 2012. Photo credit: Blake Richter

I was a baritone in the Chorale from Aug. 2011-May 2015. During that time, we performed in Germany, Paris, Scotland, England, NYC, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, St. Louis, Kansas City, and obviously the Springfield area.

In 2014, we performed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. That was the last time Dr. Guy Webb conducted the MSU Chorale after teaching at MSU since 1981. That was a very memorable and emotional performance. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the choir or in the audience.

“I have an amazing opportunity for you.”

About a month before the big announcement, I received a phone call from Dr. LaBarr. He didn’t give me any information, but he said, “If I had an amazing opportunity for you, would you be able to take off 2-3 days of school?”

I responded with, “Well, it depends on what the opportunity is, but knowing you and how excited you sound right now, it’s probably a pretty great opportunity.” When I heard the announcement, I had a feeling he wanted me to go along.

Sure enough, after I texted him congrats, I found out that I was going to go too! I immediately told my wife, who is also an alum of the Chorale, and we both were so excited! It took a couple of weeks for me to fully grasp the idea of me going along on this historic journey. I still don’t think it has fully hit that I will be experiencing this.

The Chorale will perform a send-off concert on Jan. 14 at the Welcome Center on the Missouri State campus. All are welcome to attend.

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Students celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month

October is LGBTQ+ History Month, an important time to reflect on the history of gay rights and civil rights movements. We asked Jordan Upchurch, a senior marketing major, to help us tell that story through the eyes of our students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. He produced and edited these videos.

Telling the story

Students Levi Margolies, Aryne Say and Alyssa Lee talk about their experiences as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

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How to make a bridge out of steel

Students from the engineering program have several opportunities for real-world experience where they can apply classroom lessons. One such project is the steel bridge team, a group that participates in an annual intercollegiate competition to plan, design, build, and test a 1:10 scale steel bridge. They took us behind the scenes with a timelapse video and several photos to share the experience.

The team took home the following honors from its regional conference in 2016:

  • Second place — Lightness
  • Third place — Display
  • Third place — Efficiency
  • Third place — Stiffness

Making a steel bridge in just over 10 seconds

Photos from start to finish

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A leap of faith: How I landed my internship on Capitol Hill

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By Marli Coonrod

How did a small-town girl end up spending her summer 16 hours away from everything she’s ever known, living with strangers from California, Australia, even South Africa, and reporting for work on Capitol Hill? Was it a once in a lifetime opportunity or pure luck?

Allow me to take you on a journey about someone who always knew she wanted to see the world, but wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Hi, I am Marli Coonrod and I am a current student at Missouri State University who just returned from spending my summer interning in Washington, D.C. for Senator Bill Nelson.

As a first-generation college student, I have faced many struggles since coming to college. During my first semester there were often times I felt alone and that everyone else around me was understanding this whole college thing way better than myself.

It wasn’t until Missouri State that I found a community who supported me every step of the way and encouraged me to chase after my dream, leading me all the way to Washington, D.C.

How my journey started

The Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial
The Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial

My journey began back in January when I was sent to represent my university at the annual Missouri Student Leadership Forum.

Not knowing anything about the conference, I decided to attend and ended up seeing the concept of leadership in a completely different view than I had before. I was so moved by the forum, which then led me to apply for their summer internship program, Cornerstone.

My summer in D.C. consisted of being surrounded by a group of positive, fun, outdoors-loving individuals, eating way too much Ben and Jerry’s, fulfilling a childhood dream by traveling to New York City, and learning more about myself than I ever thought was possible.

When one thinks of servant leadership, she may think of leaders that serve in the best interest of others, but the term goes much more into depth. My summer was focused on this and took different approaches at how one can live this out while incorporating her Christian values.

Now when most people view successful individuals, they don’t think about the struggles, failures, or hard times they endured to accomplish their goals. What most people don’t know is that I was not accepted into the internship program during the first round. I received an email saying I had been placed on the wait list and they would let me know if a spot opened up.

Being my stubborn self, I thought, “The chances of that happening are slim, so I should forget about it.” Then two days later, I received an email saying they had a spot open up. I think this is important to note because in an era where it is human instinct to compare our successes with another’s, we need to stop. I learned that my journey of achieving my goals is different than those individuals that I found myself wanting so desperately to become.

Why I took the plunge

Marli Coonrod and Senator Bill Nelson
Marli and Senator Bill Nelson

There are two reasons why I chose to accept the internship and move to D.C. this summer.

The first reason was to make my parents proud, but the most important reasoning behind my decision was to show every other first-generation college student that they can make their dreams a reality, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Living in D.C. for the past two months was an incredible experience and if I could describe the city in two words, they would be “beautifully diverse.” Before this summer, I pictured D.C. full of politicians, museums, and tourists.

Although there are many of those, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to interact with people from all different backgrounds and even live with others who had grown up on opposite sides of the world than myself.

Everyone has those first-day experiences and mine was no exception. I remember our intern coordinator told us that we would be meeting and having a photo taken with Senator Nelson. As I walked up to him for the picture to be taken, he asked me, “Does my tie look okay?” Then the awkwardness and nervousness that I was feeling became apparent as I stuck two thumbs up and responded, “It looks great.”

This doesn’t seem like much here in the Midwest, but in D.C., it is not seen as the norm. I ended up learning that Senator Nelson and his wife Grace are two of the most humble people I have ever met.

I saw senators bring their dogs into work, held a human brain and had normal conversations with politicians who I have been watching on the news for years. My internship coordinator told me that I wear more pink than she has ever seen in all of her years working on Capitol Hill. (I then explained how it fits my personality.)

This summer was an incredibly humbling and eye-opening experience that no amount of money could ever buy. It allowed me to see the political world behind the scenes of what the media typically chooses to show us.

Thinking about the future

Marli with her D.C. colleagues
Marli with her D.C. colleagues

Would I eventually move to D.C.?  I think this is a question that I am unable to answer, but as for now, I am excited to take on my final year pursuing my undergraduate degree.

All summer I struggled with what my next step in life was going to be. With graduation quickly approaching next spring, I weighed the options. Going after a full-time job and being done with school work was one. Then I realized that the thought of leaving Missouri State so soon made me sick.

If it wasn’t for the opportunities that this university has given me, then I would not be here discussing the best summer of my life.

I remember when I logged onto Twitter a few weeks ago, and the first tweet I saw was discussing President Clif Smart’s donation of $25,000 to a scholarship fund that supports first-generation students on Missouri State’s campus.

I had a great amount of respect for President Smart before this, but after this was announced, that respect grew and I could not be more proud to attend a university that is being led by individuals who care about us first-gens.

With all of this in mind, I have decided to continue my education and pursue my Master’s degree in communication studies. I know that my work with first-gen students has only begun and I am excited to spread this movement even wider and ensure that all first-gen students realize they can accomplish something as crazy as moving all the way across the states for an entire summer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Looking back on many of the decisions I have made in college thus far, I find myself relating to what he is referring to.

Inspiring other first-gen students

Marli at the Love sculpture in New York City
Marli at the Love sculpture in New York City

I think that the best part of being a first-gen student is you have the power to create and form your college experience. No one in your family before has accomplished obtaining a college degree. Be the first one.

Take that giant leap of faith and in the rough times, don’t stop pushing towards your goals. In the end, you will look back at how far you’ve come and know it was worth it all.

If you are the first of your family to attend college, don’t take this characteristic lightly. Being a first-generation college student is something that you should be proud of. You have the opportunity to achieve your goals and do it following your own path.

D.C. was an unforgettable experience, but when I returned to the Midwest, it was like I had never left. Not only my small town of Nevada, Missouri that taught me the value of working hard and staying true to who you are, but also what I like to call my second home, otherwise known as Springfield.

Missouri State has given me the leadership skills and confidence that I can accomplish my dreams no matter what obstacles come my way.

I can say it once, twice, but never enough. I am so proud of every student that is the first of their family to attend college. If this applies to you, I hope this will encourage you to never stop chasing after your goals.

It is frustrating and life doesn’t always go as planned, but keep your head up and remember that you have the power to determine your future. With the help of so many other individuals on this campus, I was able to make my Missouri Statement, and I can’t wait to see what the next chapter in my life will bring first.

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